Street Life

    Once a year in London, the public becomes aware of rough
    sleepers.

    Around Christmas, images of dishevelled teenagers with dogs sitting
    in cardboard boxes prick consciences and money starts rolling in to
    homeless charities.

    But for the other 364 days of the year hundreds of workers work
    tirelessly to help rough sleepers get off the streets. Staff from
    around 200 homeless organisations go out to find people on the
    streets or offer advice, healthcare, showers and food in day
    centres.

    Despite the government’s claim that they reached their target of
    reducing rough sleeping by two thirds by 2002, there are still a
    core group of people who are hard to engage along with a steady
    influx of newcomers from other parts of Britain and Eastern
    Europe.

    Stephen Turley, a former street outreach worker who now manages the
    Baron’s Court Project day centre in west London, believes it is
    hard to stem the flow of people onto the streets of the city.

    “People will always come to London because of the bright lights and
    countless other reasons, from abroad as well as other parts of the
    UK. Unless the government creates a long-term housing plan, there
    will always be homeless people here,” he says.

    The most recent government figures for June to July last year
    showed that there were 264 people sleeping rough in London – 175 of
    them in Westminster.

    Figures published by the charity The Simon Community in April this
    year showed there were 300 rough sleepers on a single night. The
    charity also contacted 82 hostels on the same night and discovered
    that only eight beds were available.

    But for many rough sleepers with multiple and complex problems,
    finding a bed is only the beginning.

    Adam Rees, outreach manager at St Mungo’s, the largest homelessness
    charity working in London, assesses rough sleepers in Westminster.
    “We are working with incredibly vulnerable people who have a range
    of issues, who have stopped being able to trust others, and don’t
    feel optimistic about their lives,” he says. “The longer they are
    on the streets the worse their problems can become.”

    Andrew Zapletal, a substance misuse worker at homelessness charity
    Broadway in west London, suggests that some problems are compounded
    by the fact that “some people are ‘warehoused’ rather than
    supported”. “The high cost of hostel places means that they would
    be unable to pay rent if they worked, so they just remain on
    housing benefit and become deskilled, or drift back onto the
    streets,” he explains.

    Stephen Turley believes that some services such as day centres can
    encourage dependency or “mollycoddling” and estimates that around
    20 per cent of people that use the Baron’s Court Project have an
    “element of learned helplessness”.

    The problem is exacerbated by a lack of move-on accommodation in
    London. A report on hostel provision by seven homelessness
    charities published earlier this year found around one third of
    homeless people were unable to move on from hostels because of a
    lack of low-cost housing.

    Government targets can also act as a barrier to the best provision
    of services, according to Andrew Zapletal. He says, “If there is a
    bed space, clients are put in even if it is not appropriate to
    their needs. It becomes a process of meeting targets rather than
    people’s needs.”

    Mark Hyder, a volunteer support worker at the Spitalfield’s Crypt
    Trust in east London, believes the project he works for provides an
    alternative to the more target driven ways of working. He says:
    “Hostels are purely there to keep people off the streets. Small
    church-run projects like the Crypt are capable of providing a much
    better one-to-one service, where people can be befriended.”

    “Larger homeless charities seem to be wrapped up in empire
    building, replicating the statutory sector, saying what a wonderful
    job they are doing rather than doing it,” Turley says.

    Despite the frustrations of dealing with government targets and the
    battle for funding, workers’ motivation to change lives remains a
    driving force.

    Turley says: “In a climate where political spinÊmasks the real
    issues affecting homeless people, we need to get back to the core
    issue of helping those people that are less fortunate than
    ourselves and tackling injustice.”

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